We have seen in films and shows that the cramped Mumbai does not allow its lovebirds to take flight. Many films across the decades have explored this concept but Rajinder Singh Bedi’s 1970 film Dastak, starring Sanjeev Kumar and Rehana Sultan, evaluates this problem through the prism of morality. Newlyweds Hameed and Salma are in love but their housing circumstances pull them apart to the extent that they can’t even remember if they know each other.
Dastak introduces us to Hameed and Salma as they move into a new apartment, but unbeknownst to them, this house has a history. Shortly before they moved in, it belonged to a prostitute named Shamshad Begum and thus, it comes with a reputation. When the sun sets and the couple hears women in the neighbourhood singing, Hameed tells Salma that the red light area is a few lanes away, as he has been told that this house is in, what middle-class people refer to as, ‘shareefon ka mohalla’. On their first evening in this house, there is a dastak (knock) on their door, and the dastaks never stop. Sometimes, it’s an old lover of Shamshad, at other times there is a pimp, and on a few occasions, there are men who want to see if the woman of the house is available for the night. Hameed loses his temper frequently but the couple does not move out, as the finances are tight.
The film looks at its surroundings largely through the eyes of Salma who has become the subject of interest in the neighbourhood. The neighbours start off by wondering if she is a prostitute since she is living in Shamshad’s old house and eventually conclude, that she must be. Her singing and the queue of men knocking at their door don’t help their case. Hameed leaves for work, and Salma is left alone to fend for herself all day long. She can’t open her windows because the boys of the next building peep in, she can’t open the gate of her house because unwanted visitors might come in, but the worst blow is when she has to give up on her music. The thing that once brought her joy, and made her father a respectable musician, is associated with being available to men in this neighbourhood. In a rebellious scene, where Salma believes she has had enough, she strips naked, lies down on the floor and sings, as if she is trying to declare that she has nothing to lose while being fully aware that her world is limited just to that tiny apartment where the walls have seen countless naked bodies.
Dastak has been sharply edited by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and it is storytelling here that gets you deeper into Hameed and Salma’s world. In a crucial sequence, when the couple is on the verge of being evicted as crowds gather around their house, Hameed loses his sanity for a few minutes. He acts like he doesn’t even know his wife anymore, thereby implying that she too, has turned into the woman who once lived here. To assert his power, he rapes her, and to make that wound even deeper, Mukherjee instantly takes us to a flashback where Hameed and Salma walked the streets of Bombay all night long, in love.
Dastak belongs to the era where the prospect of a working woman isn’t a friendly concept, and more so in this situation where the association of a working woman is with someone who sells her body to make money. For Hameed, the idea of not being able to ‘protect’ his wife from the prying eyes has him questioning his masculinity. When the neighbourhood starts assuming that Hameed is not the husband but the pimp of the fairly attractive new occupant Salma, he bans her from singing. In a bid to protect her honour, he clips her wings and gifts her a mayna inside a cage, who is a literal reminder of Salma’s state.
Dastak examines the idea of urban isolation for a woman who is not allowed to work, and can’t even step out of the house. The idea of moving to Bombay for this young couple was to find independence, but in trying to do that, Salma has lost whatever little liberty she thought she had. Salma and Hameed are one of the countless couples who believe they can fight the social system, but the film makes it obvious that no matter what they try, they are too innocent to win the game.
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